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Joy she gave, joy she has found

By Deborah Devonshire - The Spectator - June 3, 2006 

1938 was a vintage year for beautiful girls. Hollywood would have nabbed many of them: June Chapel,Clarissa Churchill,Pat Douglas, Veronica Fraser,Jane Kenyan-Slaney,Sylvia Muir,Sissy Lloyd Thomas,Elizabeth Scott or Gina Wernher.

Our lives were ruled by invitations, lists of girls and young men trying to keep up with clean white kid gloves,including elbow length ones for the evening which gave such stye to the wearer,and shoes which suffered from being danced in all night long. I longed for another evening dress ( home-made by our retired house keeper for 240 pennies a time),and some of the girls had enviable clothes from Victor Steibel,while their mothers were dressed by Molyneux or Norman Hartwell. Hats came from Madam Rita in Berkley Square;we wore silk stockings in London and lisle in the country; and all the extras which seemed essential then.

It was the beginning of that 1938 season that the new US Ambassador to the Court of St. James arrived with much friendly publicity. Joseph P. Kennedy, his wife and nine children were warmly welcomed to London. Such a crowd of good-looking boys and girls had never been seen before among diplomats and they made an impact which was never forgotten.

The fourth of the nine was 18 year-old Kathleen, called Kick. Her initiation into the English season was to spend the weekend at Cliveden, where the American Nancy Astor was the most famous hostess in the country. The Astors had four sons. The two youngest, Michael and Jakey, inherited their mother’s brilliant talent to amuse and were the best company for any girls lucky enough to be invited to that Thames-side palace. Kick was understandably nervous when she arrived among the typical Cliveden mixture of young and old politicians and religious leaders from all over the world, the Astor boys poking fun at pompous guests as only they knew how. She emerged with flying colours, having charmed the lot of them.

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Kick fell happily into this frenzied activity and became the centre of attention. She was not strictly beautiful but differed from the English girls in her infectious spirits,lack of shyness,ability to play games as well as to talk politics with the older generation. Above all her shining niceness came through. Because of her charm and lack of cattiness none of us natives resented her, in spite of her success with the young men,who were fascinated by the American phenomenon. She had the advantage of having two older brothers, Joe Jr and Jack,who could take her around with her mother’s consent.

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The golden trio: Joe Jr, Kick and Jack Kennedy


The Kennedys lived in Princes Gate, around the corner from my father’s house in Rutland Gate. There was much coming and going between the houses in company with Billy Hartington,Dawyck Haig, Andrew Cavendish,Hugh Fraser,David Ormsby-Gore,William Douglas Home, Charlie Lansdowne and his brother Ned Fitzmaurice,the Astor boys,Charles Granby,Mark Howard,Robert and Dicky Cecil and various Woods and Stanleys- all undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge.

Joe Kennedy Jr was handsome and dashing, but he preferred more sophisticated women to us 18-years olds. Jack already had something about him that separated him from the crowd. He was very thin, the legacy of serious illnesses, but he put everything into the moment, which was in 1938 to enjoy himself. My mother,watching him at a dance and impressed by what she saw, said to my future husband Andrew, who never forgot it,’ I wouldn’t be surprised if that young man became President of the United States.’

A year later came the war and the frivolities of living for pleasure ended with a bang, and we all went our separate ways. Kick and her family returned to the States, but she had made lifelong friends in London and was soon back wearing American Red Cross uniform.

Billy Hartington had been one of her crowd of suitors for some time.He eventually won the prize against all comers and after what seemed like endless negotiations over her Catholic and his avowed Protestant a compromise was reached about any children they might have. They were married in London on 6 May 1944. The fervently Catholic Rose Kennedy found it hard to forgive Kick for what she saw as a deviation from religious resolve,and I believe the relationship between mother and daughter was never the same again.

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The double tragedy that was to follow is well known. The Hartington’s only spent five weeks together before Billy’s battalion was ordered to France. On 10 September he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

After four years of widowhood, the 28-year old Kick fell in love with Peter Fitzwilliam, another one of those irresistibly attractive men who loved her. They were planning to marry and were on their way to the south of France in a small chartered plane when it crashed in a storm over the Alps and all on board were killed. So a life of such promise was extinguished. Kick is buried in the churchyard at Edensor, by Chatsworth Park. On her headstone is engraved, 'Joy she gave. Joy she has found.'

To all of us that had known and loved her it was impossible to believe that she was dead as it was fifteen years later Jack had been assassinated. The sheer vitality of brother and sister made us think them immortal. Alas,they are not.

Filed under Kathleen Kennedy Kick Kennedy Jack Kennedy John F. Kennedy Kennedys Devonshire